The Thief on the Cross
The example of the thief's conversion on the cross is often used as a basis for discrediting the necessity of baptism. However, the Bible teaches that his example is irrelevant for two reasons: First, the thief lived under a different covenant than us, and second, the thief was the fortunate recipient of unpromised grace and mercy. Now, let us first examine who this thief was and the Bible account of his conversion. Then, we will be prepared to consider its relevancy.
Who was the "Thief on the Cross" ?
The thief was one of two robbers crucified on either side of Jesus. The Scripture gives the following account of his conversion:
Then two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and another on the left. And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads. ... Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing. Matthew 27:38-39,44
However, we learn later that one of the thieves must have had a change of heart...
Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us." But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong." Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." Luke 23:39-43
The penitent thief was obviously saved by Jesus - and without baptism! His salvation cannot be questioned, because it Jesus asserted that the thief would enjoy Paradise with Jesus. But, a logical question would be, "If baptism was not necessary for the thief, then is it necessary for me?" The Biblical answer is "yes". There are two fundamental problems with assuming that baptism is not necessary for us, just because the thief was saved without it.
Different Covenant and Testament
The first point that should be observed is that the thief lived and was converted under a different covenant than us. Please recall the following passage from our study of the differences between the Old and New Testaments:
Buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. ... So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Colossians 2:12-17
So, the Old Testament was done away when Christ died upon the cross - "having nailed it to the cross." A result of it being removed was the removal of the Old Testament's authority. Therefore, the old law's commandments about "food", "drink", and "regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths" are no longer bound upon people. However, today we live under the New Covenant which commands us to be baptized. That being demonstrated, we may wonder, "Under which covenant did the thief live?
Please recall this second passage from our study on the two covenants. In it Paul uses the analogy of a woman bound to her husband through marriage to illustrate the transition between the two covenants.
For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man. Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another -- to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God." Romans 7:2-4
First, this passage teaches that the old covenant ended when Jesus died, which was after the thief's repentance and forgiveness by Jesus. Second, recall that baptism symbolizes our selfish desires having "died with Christ" (please read Romans 6:1-10). So, how could the thief have possibly been baptized into Christ's death when Christ had not even died yet? Baptism by Jesus' name was not commanded until after His death. It was first commanded in Jesus' great commission, which occurred after the resurrection (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16). Therefore, the thief's example is irrelevant to us because he was saved under a different law, the old law, when baptism had not even been commanded yet. But, there is a little more to this story.
Unpromised MercyThe observant student may recognize that this sinful robber (Matthew 27:44) had not met the requirements for atonement of sins under the old law either. Under the Old Law, the thief would have died condemned because he had not offered the appropriate sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7). In fact, he should have been stoned for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:11-16). We might ask, "So, how was the thief saved?" He was saved through the unpromised mercy of Jesus.
We know that Jesus had the power to forgive sins while He was on the earth. He forgave the sins of both the paralyzed man and the adulterous woman (Luke 5:18-26; 7:36-50), and He even miraculously healed the paralytic just to prove His deity and power to forgive sins. Jesus was able, and justified in doing this because He is the one who will actually judge us on Judgment Day (John 5:22-30; James 4:10-12).
We may continue to ask, "But, what does this all mean? What is the application? Can a person live a sinful life, call out to God at the last minute in repentance, and be saved?"
It is clear that the thief was mercifully forgiven of his sins by Jesus, just as all of God's people are mercifully forgiven. But, there is a key difference between him and us, even besides the old covenant. God does not promise mercy for such people! He has promised that all who are baptized will be saved (Mark 16:15-16; I Peter 3:21). However, no where in the Bible does God say that one can pray for forgiveness and receive it. It's just not there. But, what is there is the commandment for baptism and a fearful promise of wrath for those who do not obey God. Please recall the example of King Saul and the following statement by Jesus, which teach us that God expects us to follow His pattern in all things:
Example of King Saul:
"So Samuel said: 'Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king.'" I Samuel 15:22-23
Statement by Jesus:
"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who work iniquity.' " Matthew 7:21-23
The simple truth is that no where in the Bible does God promise that the "sinner's prayer" will bring forgiveness of sins. Moreover, the only promise we have on the matter is the one above where Jesus promises that calling out to God without obedience is not enough. The sinner's prayer alone will only result in condemnation.
The example of thief is irrelevant for two fundamental reasons. First, under the old covenant, he was not subject to the commandment of baptism to which we are subject. Second, he was an exceptional case that involved unpromised mercy from the Judge of all men, Jesus. Since Jesus Christ is the Judge, it is His prerogative and right to grant mercy where He has not promised to do so. But, just because He made a exception, that does not mandate that He will do so for us on Judgment Day. Moreover, both the Old and New Testament examples of people who did not follow God's pattern teach us of God's wrath that fell upon those who willfully disobeyed God, even with the best of motives.
Therefore, the concluding questions for us are these, "Will you and I presume not to be baptized, ignoring all the Scripture's teaching on the essential role of baptism?" "What does the Bible say that God has promised for those who are guilty of willful disobedience?" Or, "Will we follow the simple instructions for salvation?" There is only one clear answer for which God has promised, "he shall be saved" (Mark 16:15-16). Have you met the conditions of this promise?
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